Starting a Custody Case
A custody action is a law suit, usually between separated parents, over legal and physical custody of their minor child. State law authorizes court to decide whether one or both parents make decisions regarding the child, with which parent the child lives (custodial parent), and how often the child visits the other parent (non-custodial parent).
If you have an attorney, he or she will file the necessary papers and obtain a date for your court appearance. If you do not have an attorney, you may file pro se (on your own) either using forms available at the courthouse or on line. The Family Court Office provides assistance to fill out the forms Monday through Friday from 12:15 pm until 3:00 pm. Forms are also available at www.palawhelp.org
Jurisdiction in a custody case is based on where the child resides. Except in unusual circumstances, the child must have lived in Lehigh County for six months immediately prior to filing. If the child is less than six months old and has lived here most of his/her life, Lehigh County will probably have jurisdiction.
A person entitled to start a legal action must have “standing.” The Custody Act permits a mother or father to file against the other parent. Grandparents can file for custody when the parents of the child are separated or when parents who live together are neglecting the child.
State rules permit a minor parent to file or defend a custody case without the requirement of appointment of a guardian for the minor parent.
No. The child must be born.
A party receiving public assistance or who is otherwise without financial resources to pay the costs of litigation may be entitled to proceed in forma pauperis (IFP). A party fills out a poverty petition stating all of his/her income, assets, liabilities and debts. The petition will be sent to a judge for review and decision.
Yes. Go to Self Help
A custody complaint requires the name and address of mother, father, and the child, and the child's addresses for the last five years.
Service is delivery of the documents to the opposing party. Rules of Court specify how service can be made. Proof of service is required before any court order will be entered.
You must try to locate the other party by asking family or friends, checking with the post office, or looking at social media. If you cannot find the other party, you can request an Order for Special Service by filing a petition.
Court appearances and steps in a Custody Action
Mediation is a meeting with the parties and a trained professional who helps people reach an agreement with each other. If an agreement is reached, it becomes a written court order. Mediation is generally one hour long. Lawyers and children do not participate in mediation.
A custody conference is a meeting with parties, their attorneys and a custody hearing officer who is an attorney employed by the court. The hearing officer establishes the issues in the case, explores settlement options, and determines whether the case proceeds to trial.
When the issues in a case involve questions of legal custody (who makes decisions) or primary or shared physical custody (where the child lives), the case is decided by a judge. If the case involves partial physical custody, the custody hearing officer will conduct a hearing. Contempt hearings are conducted by a judge.
An attorney is trained in the law, and in court procedures, and can protect your valuable legal rights. An attorney is not required, however it is highly recommended, especially for hearing or trial.
The Bar Association of Lehigh County Lawyer Referral Service provides a low cost consultation with a qualified attorney call (610) 433-7094 or LRS@lehighbar.org
Requests for continuance of a mediation must be made on the Family Court Continuance Request form.
Requests for continuance of a conference before a hearing officer must be made on the Family Court Continuance Request form.
You and the other party must complete a Praecipe to Withdraw/Discontinue By Agreement, and submit it to Family Court Administration, Room 325. The court will take action based on the parties’ agreement. PDF MS Word
No. Court Rules prohibit ex parte (one party only) communications with a hearing officer or judge.
Children are never brought to mediation. Children are not brought to a conference without permission of the hearing officer. If you believe the hearing officer should speak to the children, you must write a letter to the hearing officer stating the reasons for your request, and send a copy of the letter to the other parent. The hearing officer will review the request and respond.
When an Order exists
It depends on what is included in the PFA. If the PFA supersedes the custody order, follow the PFA. If not, then follow the custody order.
You can file a Petition for Contempt stating the alleged violation of the existing order. You may request mediation or a conference. .
The police generally don't get involved in custody disputes unless specifically required
by the Order. If the other party isn't following the order you can file a petition for contempt.
You must file a Petition for Modification stating what you want changed, and why you want it changed. You may request mediation or a conference. If there is no agreement, the case will be scheduled for hearing before a hearing officer or judge.
You can be found in contempt by a judge and your visits may be restricted.
You can submit your agreement on a form available in Family Court Administration, Room 325. The agreement must be signed by both parties, the signatures witnessed, and the form submitted to the Family Court Administration. The agreement will be sent to a judge and, if approved, an order will be entered.
Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas, 455 West Hamilton Street, Allentown, PA 18101-1614 • (610) 782-3000